Dick Polman: Ebola ignorance and the marketing of fear
It takes a special kind of jerk to market fear and exploit public ignorance in the midst of a health emergency—and, sure enough, members of this repellent American subspecies are already flapping their yaps.
It’s horrible that the latest outbreak of Ebola—“the largest, most severe, most complex outbreak,” according to the World Health Organization—has infected 1,800 people and killed more than 1,000 in West Africa. But after listening to the right-wing purveyors of panic, I’d swear that the Grim Reaper is poised to lay waste to everyone who treads the greenswards of suburbia.
“President Obama has done something that’s never been done before,” decried Rush Limbaugh, who wrongly claimed Obama ordered the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta to bring Americans suffering from the Ebola virus into America. “If there’s going to be a crisis, it may as well be here so that Obama and the Democrat Party can lead the compassion train.”
The fact is, Obama didn’t “order” anything. Nor did the CDC or the military. Two Christian medical missionary groups, Samaritan’s Purse and Serving in Mission USA, brought the two workers to Atlanta by private chartered jet and made their own arrangements with specialists at Emory University. We can certainly debate whether the Christian groups acted wisely, but, sorry Rush, this was not about Obama “advancing a Democrat Party agenda.”
Actually, Rush seems moderate when you compare him to radio and Internet star Alex Jones, one of our more ubiquitous conspiracy freaks. On YouTube the other day, he laid out Obama’s purported plan to use Ebola as an excuse to augment his authoritarian rule:
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a cy-op to create terror and to fear-monger and to bring a greater medical tyranny—This is all about a power grab to set up the medical tyranny state.”
Jones said Ebola is an “airborne” disease, so now Obama has an excuse to jail anybody he wants, simply by claiming that he’s trying to prevent the disease from spreading. “Obama signed an executive order to ‘disappear’ Americans if you even have a cough—to basically lock you in a prison.”
Jones was referring to an executive order that Obama signed July 31, but clearly he needs to take a course in remedial reading. Obama’s order merely updates a 2003 order signed by George W. Bush, authorizing the Department of Health and Human Services to issue isolation or quarantine directives, in the event of “severe acute respiratory syndromes.” It doesn’t mandate the detention of people with severe respiratory symptoms. And Ebola isn’t a respiratory disease. And contrary to Jones’ rant, Ebola isn’t an “airborne” disease—unless a sick soul coughs his blood or saliva directly on you.
Meanwhile, the fever swamp has been pulsing with reports—excuse me, “reports”—that Ebola-infected illegal immigrants are crossing our southern border. It was inevitable that Ebola and the immigration issue would be seamlessly merged.
For instance, the right-wing Breitbart website says 71 “individuals from nations currently suffering from the world’s largest Ebola outbreak” have been caught trying to breach the border. (Naturally, Fox News picked up the story.) But note the sleight of hand. The story never actually says, much less documents, that those people have the disease. And a federal Customs and Border Patrol official later said, “Those are NOT Ebola numbers.”
Elsewhere, Congressman Phil Gingrey of Georgia wrote a letter last month to the CDC, lamenting that such “reports” of Ebola-infected immigrants are “particularly concerning.” It turned out, under close inspection, that Gingrey’s staffers had simply trolled a phony story posted by one Alex Jones’ websites. And when later questioned by NBC News, Gingrey folded like a cheap suit: “I can’t tell you specifically that there were any cases of Ebola, I don’t think there were.”
I will now yield the floor to Michael Gerson, a former top aide to George W. Bush. In a commentary piece, he castigates the conservatives who are engaged in “the opportunistic incitement of fear.” He bemoans the fact that “right-wing populism inclines to turn against scientific elites. This is positively dangerous.”
True that, sir. In the midst of a medical crisis, the marketing of fear and the exploitation of ignorance are diseases we can ill afford.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His columns are distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.